What does a binge writer do when she sends her manuscript off to the publisher? First, she wrings her hands for a few minutes, hoping they like it and it doesn’t put her in the dreaded sophomore slump.
Then she gardens. Or she tries. Even thought she is no gardener.
Why would she do such a thing?
I was thrilled to send my second novel off to my publisher in May. For most of April I was in nose-to-the-grindstone mode, struggling to hush my nagging perfectionist internal editor and make my deadline.
I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I sent that manuscript out. It was a great feeling to have it finished, to have successfully solved all of my plot problems and become the Mistress of Troubleshooting. But I was exhausted. My brain hurt. I love writing, don’t get me wrong. But it’s hard. Seriously hard. In the last week of revision, I spent 12+ hours writing and editing each day, and by the time it was over I didn’t even want to write a tweet.
But I have Novel #3 to plan. It looms over me like a thunderhead, because I have no idea what it’s going to be about. None.
My writer self said I had to get on that immediately. But some other part of me said I needed something different.
What I needed was to get outside. Get my hands dirty. Do some manual labor. So on my first day off from my regular job, I did not write. Instead, I went straight to the local nursery (Ray’s, the best around) and bought a flat of flowering plants. I had no plan, of course—I just grabbed one of everything that would come back next year and grow in the shade. (I owe a big thank you to Cathy, who has tremendous patience for greenhorns like me who point and say, “What is that? Can it take shade? Is it a perennial?” over and over, like a parrot with gardening gloves. She nodded her approval as I loaded my car with yarrow, salvia, peppermint, basil, black-eyed Susans, and a dozen others whose names I immediately forgot.
I’d never call myself a gardener, and I’m lucky nothing has died yet—but there’s something about shifting gears that helps me as a writer. Sometimes I have to give myself a break and stop looking at words, and stop crafting sentences—and stop putting so much damned pressure on myself. Don’t misunderstand—I can never stop writing completely, but sometimes when I freeze up thinking about the next book, the next chapter, the next scene, I have to take a time-out and do something different that uses another part of my brain. It’s my form of cross-training.
Sometimes as writers, we have to grant ourselves a vacation. I read once that if you’re struggling with a writing project (or any other that takes a lot of brain power), you should go running or do another form of exercise to give your brain a break. The argument was that by doing this, you relax your thinking muscles and create a quiet head space that invites creative inspiration. I’m no runner, but that tactic has worked in the past for me—swimming some laps or doing a little yoga has gotten me through moments of writer’s block and helped me troubleshoot my drafts with fresh eyes.
For me, playing gardener does the same thing. By doing something that uses my body and allows my brain to relax, I can make myself available to the muse. The cluttered thoughts disappear as I stop thinking so hard, and then I find the creative thoughts slipping in, and I see solutions that weren’t visible before.
I’ve given myself a month off now, and am finally feeling the urge to start writing my next book. In the meantime, I’ll plant these last few herbs and give myself permission to daydream about the possibilities of Novel #3. For all my writer friends who are feeling stuck, I’m giving you strict orders to cut yourself some slack. Step away from the computer or the notebook and get your hands into something else. Let your brain relax and make room for the creative thoughts that are circling around your head. You might be surprised by the bursts of creativity that come your way, and your writer self will thank you for it.